Eva Moskowitz isn’t having a good week. Neither is veteran reporter John Merrow. Both can blame his report on the school discipline practices of Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools. Thanks to the fracas that has followed, each of them have come under scrutiny for their practices. But for school reformers, the real question they face lies not with what Moskowitz and Merrow have done. What they must confront is how they will address the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other damaging traditional approaches to discipline that Moskowitz embraces and Merrow rightfully puts on blast.
Bringing all of these matters to a head is Merrow’s report last week on PBS NewsHour detailing Success’ penchant for high levels of out-of-school suspensions. Throughout the broadcast, Merrow took aim at how Success’ school leaders suspended children for infractions as minor as not paying attention in class. One Success school (with 203 children enrolled) meted out 44 suspensions to just 11 kindergartners and first-graders, while another (with 132 children enrolled) meted out 101 suspensions to 32 kids; one was suspended 12 times.
Merrow went further by mentioning claims by Moskowitz’s critics that Success uses harsh school discipline as a tool to rid its schools of children who may perform poorly on New York State’s battery of standardized tests. This including reporting that Success’ attrition rate is higher than that of the schools operated by the rival Knowledge is Power Program; pointing out that the family of the one child suspended 12 times eventually moved the kid out of the school; and repeating unsubstantiated claims by some families (that didn’t go on camera) that Success school leaders advise families of kids suspended multiple times to leave the schools.
For Moskowitz, Merrow’s report doesn’t exactly cast her schools in a positive light. This is not a good thing. After all, the former New York City councilperson has won acclaim for operating charters that significantly improving student achievement. Moskowitz has also emerged as one of the leading players in the battle between Big Apple reformers and traditionalist-oriented Mayor Bill de Blasio over the latter’s efforts to stop the expansion of school choice and systemic reform. Accusations that Success is using suspensions to push out kids doesn’t exactly enhance her credibility as a leading reformer.
The claims also give political ammunition to the American Federation of Teachers, whose Big Apple local has sparred with Moskowitz and her allies since her days as chair of the New York City Council’s education oversight committee. Since Merrow’s report aired, AFT and its once semi-respectable think tank, Albert Shanker Institute, have accused Success of failing to accurately report suspension numbers to the U.S. Department of Education, pointing to discrepancies between what is found in the Office for Civil Rights’ database and the data collected by the New York State Education Department.
The fact that AFT has had little to say on the overuse of harsh school discipline — and, in fact, has stood by as locals such as the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers have opposed efforts to overhaul school discipline — makes any statement from the union on this issue seem like political opportunism. But as AFT knows, even the most-spurious accusations can stick onto the opposition, especially when lobbed during a period of negative press.
Moskowitz knows this, too. So she has gone on the offensive. Through her public relations staff, she issued an eight-page statement accusing Merrow of refusing to allow Success to respond to claims made by Fatima Geidi, the mother of a former student about the circumstances surrounding his out-of-school suspensions. Moskowitz notes that the student had run afoul of school leaders because of incidents such as “throwing another student against the bathroom wall”, “kicking, scratching, and punching a teacher”, and “stabbing the walls with pencils”. Moskowitz went further by reprinting (and later, releasing) a series of e-mails in which Merrow tells Moskowitz that Geidi’s statements were “limited and should not be a cause for concern on your part”, and states that the broadcast “emphasizes—’celebrates’ might be a more appropriate verb--your network’s focus on science and the arts”.
Moskowitz also takes aim at Merrow’s claim that Success’ attrition levels were higher than average, citing studies from New York City’s Independent Budget Office and other sources; this includes Success’ attrition rate of 10 percent was lower than the 11 percent rate for rival KIPP as well as the 13 percent average for New York City’s traditional district. Declares Moskowitz in the release: “Merrow denigrated the hard work of these educators.”
There are legitimate questions about whether Success violated the federal privacy rights of Geidi’s child by detailing the accusations in the letter. Your editor has to honestly wonder if Moskowitz gave any second thought about the negative reaction that would come from mentioning the discipline record of a young child who is merely a bystander in this fracas.
But with PBS issuing a clarification this evening regretting the failure to give Moskowitz a chance to respond to claims made by Geidi, it is also clear that her accusation is true. And it doesn’t cast Merrow’s reporting in a good light. Certainly reporters and news outlets have no obligation to fully disclose the focus of stories to their subjects. But they should give them opportunities to respond to any claims or accusations dug up during the course of reporting — and air those responses accordingly. What Merrow did was, at best, problematic, and at worse, shoddy.
Merrow also has to admit that the statement that Success has a higher level of student attrition than other traditional and charter schools isn’t borne out by evidence available so far. Given that this was mentioned in the discussion about whether Success uses out-of-school suspensions to push out struggling children and improve performance, the mention is also a problem. PBS should immediately issue a correction. [PBS declares that Merrow “reconciled those numbers fairly and thoroughly.”]
Merrow should have also added this caveat in comparing Success’ numbers with that of New York City’s traditional district: That the district has long played fast-and-loose with its own discipline data, a point Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman pointed out three years ago. This includes the penchant of the district to report suspensions meted out by superintendents overseeing the district’s 27 units (which tend to be lower in number) while leaving out those handed out by school principals. As the Big Apple branch of Chalkbeat noted earlier this year, the district meted out 69,643 out-of-school suspensions in 2011-2012; yet the district only reported 30,245 out-of-school suspensions to federal officials. Any comparisons between Success and traditional district schools have to be done cautiously.
Yet for reformers, the political troubles Moskowitz face as a result of Merrow’s report is of small concern. She’s a grown-up and must deal with it. Same is true for Merrow about the questions raised by Moskowitz about his journalism. What does matter for reformers is whether they will continue to tolerate school discipline practices that have been proven by three decades of data to damage the futures of children? Especially if those practices are embraced and defended by those within the movement.
This is an important question because, as Merrow points out in his response to Dropout Nation, the fact that Success metes out high levels of out-of-school suspensions on kindergartners and other children “is not in dispute”. Chalkbeat reported back in February that Moskowitz’s charters suspended 17 percent of its students in 2011-2012, the sixth-highest among the 12 charter operators surveyed in the outlet’s analysis of data supplied to the Big Apple’s traditional district; the 27 percent suspension rate for the outfit’s Harlem 1 school is higher than all but 13 charters surveyed.
Moskowitz has long-defended Success’ school discipline practices. Two years ago, in the New York Post, she proclaimed that suspensions are “a school’s version of giving a child a ‘time out’” so that they understand that “there are minimum standards of conduct for being part of the school community.” From where she sits, suspensions improve student achievement, make schools safer, and provide children with cultures in which they can thrive. These arguments have been defended by other reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Charles Sahm of the Manhattan Institute in their defenses of Success and its approach.
Yet the data has long ago have proven Moskowitz and others wrong. As Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later. Just as importantly, researchers such as Indiana University’s Russ Skiba and Linda Raffaele Mendez of the University of South Florida have shown that few children are ever suspended for violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession. More often than not, kids are more-likely to be suspended for non-violent offenses such as disruptive behavior, which are arbitrarily determined by teachers and school leaders depending on how they view the children in their care. [Success’ own discipline code gives staff wide leeway to suspend or expel.]
Data demonstrates that the worst-performing schools and districts are the ones that mete out such penalties the most; the fact that Success Academy is an outlier on this front doesn’t mean anything more than that. Given that most out-of-school and in-school suspensions are meted out for what are arbitrarily determined by teachers and school leaders to be disruptive behavior, this isn’t surprising. What has become clear is that the overuse of harsh school discipline is less about the behavior of children than about the unwillingness of the adults to educate them. In light of the commitment by charter school operators to help all children succeed, such overuse should be horrifying.
The problem with overusing harsh school discipline goes beyond the failure to improve student achievement and school cultures. Children from poor and minority backgrounds, especially young black men and women as well as kids condemned to special ed ghettos, are more-likely to be suspended than white peers in regular classrooms. As a team led by Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA noted earlier this year in his review of suspension and expulsion data, the out-of-school suspension rate of 23.2 percent for black middle- and high schoolers in 2013-2014 (based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education) is three times the 6.4 percent out-of-school suspension rate for white peers. As John Wallace of the University of Pittsburgh demonstrated in a 2008 study on referrals to dean’s offices, young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts.
The fact that so many black kids are targeted under harsh school discipline practices isn’t surprising. As both Skiba and the American Psychological Association have determined, young black men are also viewed by teachers and school leaders as being older, less-innocent, and greater troublemakers than white counterparts. This bears out Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly’s determination as part of his work on overlabeling of kids as special ed cases that adults in schools end up labeling certain groups of students as being troublemakers because they think they are destined to end up that way. Teachers and school leaders may not be explicitly bigoted against poor and minority children.
Meanwhile the consequences of overusing harsh school discipline goes beyond children being condemned to academic and economic underachievement. When school operators, traditional or charter, overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. This leads to damage that is morally unacceptable and educationally indefensible. Especially when restorative practices, especially those used by other charters and traditional schools, that do a better job of teaching kids how to behave are available.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t cases where suspensions are necessary. It is to say that they should be only used in the rarest and worst cases of bad behavior. There’s no way that the school reform movement can defend traditional school discipline — or continue succoring Moskowitz’s practices — without betraying its commitment to all children. Reformers must finally call out Eva and others for practices that are intolerable no matter who does them.